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Monday, 1 December 2008

On Valmiki's Daughter

Trinidadian-Canadian Shani Mootoo's new novel, Valmiki's Daughter, was recently published in Canada; reviews have begun to appear in various newspapers and other media. A sampling:

If the premise of Shani Mootoo's latest novel wasn't so sad it might easily read as farce: A handful of gay spouses in a conservative community pretend to be straight, while their partners pretend not to know.

The action of Valmiki's Daughter unfolds in Trinidad among members of the urban, affluent Indian class whose ancestors climbed out of indentured service in the cane and cacao fields. With such dark memories coursing through their veins, it's no wonder they are prepared to sacrifice personal contentment to maintain their elite status.

-- Donna Bailey Nurse, writing in the Toronto Star.

The Valmiki of the title is Dr Valmiki Krishnu who lives with his wife Devika and their two daughters Viveka and Vashti in a very comfortable upper-middle-class neighbourhood. Valmiki appears to be a compulsive womanizer, with a well-established reputation. He is driven to such displays of infidelity because he needs to conceal the fact that he is really a closeted homosexual.

There is a deep sadness in the character; Mootoo presents his story with a very sympathetic tone. He knows that his wife knows about the women and the man who is his lover, although it is never discussed. And he knows that his daughter Viveka doesn't perform heterosexuality very well but his own guilt and shame prevent him stepping up and defending her difference. One of the central tensions in the story is that in the Krishnu's world, there is absolutely no way to even begin a discussion about queerness.

-- Maureen Phillips, writing on the website xtra.ca.

Valmiki is a terrible husband and father, but a great character, because as selfish and misguided as he is, it's impossible to condemn him. He's too well fleshed out. We know too much about his miserable situation. He'd rather die ("In the forest. Alone. Like a man.") than be caught out as a gay man in an unaccepting culture. It's clear that he makes mistakes, but it is also clear why he makes them. In that sense, this is very realistic fiction.

-- Anne Chudobiak, in the Montreal Gazette.

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